Take the Tobacco Cash and to Hell with It

Article excerpt


IN ACCORDANCE with strict parliamentary principles, I must declare an interest. As I write this column I am wearing a vivid purple yachting shirt.

Embroidered on it in six prominent locations are the words Silk Cut.

If you are not of this world, I should explain that Silk Cut is a brand of low-tar cigarette.

The shirt was given to me by Lawrie Smith, who today sets sail from Cape Town for Australia on the 4,600-mile second leg of the Whitbread Round-the-World Race. He is skippering a yacht called Silk Cut.

'Ah,' the tobacco police will cry, 'a bribe.

A palpable attempt to grease the palm of a reporter to splash the words Silk Cut all over his newspaper.' Codswallop. It was a gift. Lawrie and I have been mates for years. I want him to win, and not only for his sake. Silk Cut is the only British yacht in this most perilous of sporting ventures.

Without the sponsorship of Gallaher, the company which manufactures the cigarette brand I've mentioned five times already, we'd have no entry at all.

To write in these terms today is to invite a deluge of hate mail and poisonous faxes but, to hell with it, I am tired of the hypocrisy, the imported political correctness and the phoney statistics that cloud the issue of tobacco sponsorship of sport.

The outrage that greeted this week's apparent Government U-turn over Formula One motor racing tobacco sponsorship is laughable. I have no idea whether the eminently clever Max Mosley smooth-talked his way to reversing a decision that would have put 50,000 people out of work in Britain but I do know that his victory would have been secretly greeted with huge relief at the Treasury. Assailed from all sides for more funds for education, defence and, ironically, health, it simply cannot contemplate the loss of the massive revenue it receives from tobacco taxation.

It was stupid of New Labour to pledge a ban on tobacco advertising and sponsorship in its election manifesto in the first place. But its U-turn now may well be more pragmatic than most realise.

Do not interpret from the foregoing that this column supports, let alone advocates, the smoking habit. It does not. It accepts without question that tobacco can severely impair health, that it accelerates the deaths of many thousands of people every year.

What it does not accept, and never will, is the dogmatic assertion that, because a grand prix racing car or an ocean-going yacht or the boundary advertisements around a cricket ground bear the name of a tobacco product, they will instantly induce young people to rush out and buy a packet of cigarettes of that brand.

It is utter nonsense. It is an assumption so unquantifiable that it doesn't warrant the definition of 'statistic'. It is guesswork by an antismoking lobby completely out of touch with the younger generation.

The reason young people smoke - and more and more seem to be doing so at every party I attend - is because they are on the receiving end of an authoritarian campaign. Defiance is the elixir of youth.

I am fortunate. I have three sons and one stepson. None smokes. None has been seduced by a tobacco brand name on a racing car, a yacht's spinnaker or an advertising hoarding in a sports arena. And nor, I suspect, have many or any young people.

So why do the tobacco companies keep pouring cash into sport?

Firstly, it is conscience money. Secondly, they know that governments are desperate for the tax revenue that pours into their coffers. Thirdly, they are aiming at recidivists like me to switch to their particular brands.

Well, bad luck, chaps. I have smoked since I was l5 and never touched a Silk Cut in my life.

It is probably specious to point out that the Round-the-World yacht race is jointly sponsored by Whitbread, which brews alcohol, and Volvo, which manufactures cars. …